Female Serial Killers Are Not “Lethal Ladies”

Posted on March 13, 2012 by


Monster - the first modern female serial killer to capture public attention. Image: Amazon

A new article titled “Lethal Ladies: Revisiting What We Know About Female Serial Murders” is in Homicide Studies by Farrell, Keppel, and Titterginton. It’s a good article. And I get the need to draw people in with catchy titles, even in an academic journal. But language matters.

My problem with the titling of this article is the word ladies. Ladies carries such heavy connotations of gendered expecations. A lady should be nice, sophisticated, stylish, feminine, polite, unobtrusive, sensitive, caring, classy, and quiet. It is the juxtaposition of these connotations with the term lethal that makes the title catchy.

Image: Amazon

I understand that female offenders occupy a strange place in the imaginations of academics and the general public. There is the sexualization of female inmates, the invisibility of the typical female offender, and the demonization of non-gender conforming killers like Aileen Wuornos. Don’t think that gender-conforming female convicts have an easy time of it either. Is there anyone out there that didn’t experience at least a little schadenfreude when Martha Stewart went to prison?

But Lethal Ladies? Really? Just because it’s sexy doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. While I have more room to excuse this loose use of language in the general media, who must rely on ratings, clicks, and macabre interest in serial homicide to draw in enough audience to turn an advertising profit, why would academics resort to the same tactics? And why would Sage Publishing participate?

Read the article. It’s interesting, and while I’m not crazy about the Kelleher and Kelleher typology to begin with, academics do need to spend more time thinking about gender, homicide, and serial killings. I just hope that we can approach the topic with greater sophistication and nuance in using gendered terms that carry serious social baggage.